Long-Term Development of Young Athletes Pt. 1 - Setting The Foundation

If there’s one thing that’s severely lacking for young athletes and adolescents today, it’s setting a strong foundation and taking a "long-term development" view. In the world where we seek instant gratification and want to be better right now, there’s only thought given to this present moment and not what we’re moving toward and trying to build/achieve. This is causing young athletes to continually spin their wheels and fall behind the eight-ball in regards to their development. There’s a focus on their sport-specificity, but not what else can be done as an extension to make them better. We’ve identified core principles and steps that begin to set the foundation for future success and long-term development in young athletes, from both a mental and physical standpoint

We have a phenomenal opportunity within our grasp, an opportunity to build the next generation and instil them with the physical and mental skills that will aid them both in their sport and in their life. And yet, we’re letting it slip through our grasp by not giving it the attention, detail, and power it deserves

Our intention in this two-part series is to discuss long-term development of athletes, beginning with setting a strong mental and physical foundation, and then how to approach ‘planning' for the future

When it comes to young athletes, there’s often no starting point identified, and very rarely is there given any thought to individualisation. A blanket is simply thrown over everyone and that’s it

And worse, there’s no real view to development within the future, be it within the next twelve months and/or beyond...

There’s no “offseason” support or guidance...

There’s no holistic approach taken…

We attack the body, but we never attack the mind. And yet, the easiest way to the mind is through the body…

And so, here are our guiding principles when it comes to beginning all of our Young Athletes on their journey. This is how The Academy helps to set the most solid of foundations. It is how to utilise that first session and encounter to get to know the young athlete, address both their mind and body, and expose them to movement patterns and technique they’ll need to develop

Building The Foundation

Where does the young athlete want to go. What do they want to achieve? What are their perceived weaknesses? And even more importantly, what are their perceived strengths… And how can you be an extension to make them even better at their sport, how can you enhance their skills...

Reach out to their sport specific coaches and gain insight from them. Ask how you can help make their job easier by being an extension to their already great work. Ask about competitions and such as this will come in handy with long-term programming & periodisation (article coming later)

The very first question we ask every teen we meet is incredibly powerful - “if you were to meet yourself in 12 months time, whom do you want to meet? not just physically, but emotionally as well. what have they achieved? where are they then…”

There is always a long pause of silence, but this question gets them thinking and asking why - which is all important when it comes to their future

The Physical

1) Establish That Start-Point

There needs to be some form of a structure of how we’re going to go from here to there. And this will most likely be individualised between every young athlete. You must know the here - as it is important to know what the difference is between where the young athlete is now, and whom they need to become to get to where they wish to be. 

it’s not about who you are today. it’s about who you want to become, and how hard you’re willing to work to become that person

And for this, there needs to be some form of standardisation to the test(s) we use to establish their “here". For example, there are only a few specific skills we can test - power, strength, speed, agility, explosiveness, mobility, endurance, etc… And for each of these “skills", there should be standardised tests used; the individualisation comes from which specific skill sets each individual young athlete requires. So for instance, to test mobility we could use a functional movement screen and for strength we could use one - or all - of the big 5 - squat, deadlift, power clean, bench press, pull-up/chin-up

2) Know Which Primal Movement Patterns to Focus on & Teach

Every single athlete, youth or adult, beginner or advanced, should be able to perform the six basic primal movement patterns - squat, hip hinge, push, pull, carry, rotate (and perform single legged/armed variations of each). Whilst not all essential, we touch on every single one during our first foundations session, predominantly just the technique and having them “feel” the movement. We start at the very beginning of our “graduation system” and go low weight, and higher reps to try and ingrain the movement pattern as well as possible - and this is our sole intention for quite some time whilst simply changing the weight variable

The Mental

1) Always Set Your Intention

And in this case, it’s leaving this initial foundations session feeling more confident in the gym setting and with all the movement patterns. This helps build confidence, as there are no high expectations set and we find helps to remove any and all anxiety. Another thing we focus on that builds confidence is getting a lot of small wins, and making sure that everything - even technique correction - ends in a positive. For example, "on those squats we need you to focus on stabilising those knees, but fantastic job on keeping that chest up and great depth"

2) Know That Everyone Learns Differently, and Adapt Yourself To Them

Personally, I’m a kinaesthetic learner. I learn by doing. I will read/see something or hear something, but then I need to get stuck in and do it myself. One of my great friends is a visual learner though, he has to see things performed multiple times before attempting them himself. And so many young athletes we see are auditory learners, meaning you need to explain it step-by-step, possibly writing it down for them, before they’ll perform it. And you need to adapt yourself to this, or you’ll limit the experience of the young athlete(s) you’re teaching. We like to adopt a specific approach: tell them what you’re doing, tell them again, show them whilst telling them, do it again, show them and tell them how its supposed to feel, have them perform it whilst telling them, have them perform it whilst telling you, have them perform it whilst telling themselves, have them perform it whilst telling themselves in their own heads. Some may think this is overkill, but it honestly takes less than two minutes, and some will pick it up and progress quicker than others

3) Instil Confidence About YOURSELF In Them

If you believe something, you’re more likely to match your behaviours and actions to those beliefs, you’ll tie into exactly what is happening. And a young athlete’s belief in yourself as a coach and your abilities is crucial. This confidence can be instilled by simply having other, more advanced athlete’s training at the same time, or coming across as confident in your abilities and believing what you say. If you can get the young athlete to believe in you right now, then the future for both of you will be incredibly bright

4) Be Genuine, Be Authentic, and Care

As a coach, we have this child's potential in the palm of our hands... and it's our duty to protect and nurture it with all that we have

As a coach, we have this child's potential in the palm of our hands... and it's our duty to protect and nurture it with all that we have

Young athlete’s are more comfortable with coaches who care about them, their progress, and their success. This is quite possibly the easiest thing to do, yet it is often so rare nowadays. Relate to them, talk about their interests and things that are going on in their life. Again, forming this relationship now will benefit you both in the long-run

That’s it. They’re our core principles that underline every foundations session with new young athlete’s we conduct, and are what we continue to hold true to during the entirety of our time with young athletes.

Coaches Note: The biggest challenge we hear about is overloading the athlete with new information, but this again is individualised between athletes. From our personal experience, covering a squat, hip hinge, pushes and pulls in a foundation session is NOT too much - we’ve never had information overload be a problem. We always utilise the next session (or a separate one entirely) to discuss goals, nutrition, mindset, etc… 

Your Real Job

Is great programming. You should know all about macro-, meso-, and microcyles - as well as the athletes competitions and what they need specifically to become even better. And still, you cannot let their strengths weaken but not giving them any attention. AND THIS IS WHERE SO MANY PEOPLE GO WRONG, as there is no view to the future and what you’re helping the young athlete become

In The End

You need to know this is a long process, a long journey. But these principles allow for the most solid of beginnings to be had

There are no shortcuts to be taken - and besides, no shortcut leads anywhere with going anyway…

Stay tuned, as next week we will pull back the curtain on long-term programming, and what to build on top of this solid foundation that’s now been set

Nick Maier